'Mother Country Radicals'

IssueAugust - September 2023
Comment by Chris Cole

Mother Country Radicals is a fascinating ‘family history’ of the 1970s US radical left focusing on the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. The 10-part podcast is thoughtfully narrated by Zayd Dohrn, the son of Weather Underground leaders Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. The series reflects on the consequences for him and his brothers of his parents’ involvement, and what it means to be willing to fight back, whether violently or nonviolently, against a racist and unjust system.

In their early 20s, Bernadine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and their associates were involved in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), protesting against the Vietnam War and taking part in a variety of community projects – from alternative schooling to free legal assistance programmes.

Bernadine tells of one occasion when she heard that the police were evicting a family. As the sheriffs were carrying out furniture, one man arrived, handed her his jacket, picked up a box and took it back into the house. He came out and did it again – and gradually others did the same. The sheriffs, realising they were outnumbered, simply left. The man, Dohrn realised, was Muhammad Ali.

Gradually, Dohrn and others grew disenchanted with peaceful protest. They turned to burning police cars and bombing statues and unoccupied draft centres. While at first dismissive of some of their actions, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton later called them ‘mother country radicals’ or ‘white people in the mother country that are of the same type of things we are for’.

The links between the white Weather Underground and militant black groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army are a hugely important element of the series – as are the assassinations of black activists by the police.

Zayd interviews Jamal Joseph. Inspired by the Panthers’ resistance to police violence, aged just 16, Jamal joins the Panthers but his grandmother refuses to let him go to meetings. One of the local Panther leaders, Yedwa, a mentor and hero to Jamal, sits down with his grandmother and persuades her to let him keep coming to meetings.

A few months later, the police raid Jamal’s house and he becomes one of ‘the Panther 21’, charged with conspiracy to blow up department stores and police stations. Yedwa, it turns out, is an undercover cop. While he is in Rikers Island, trying to come to terms with this betrayal, Jamal learns that Fred Hampton, the leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, has been killed by the police.

Hampton’s assassination enrages the Weather Underground and they plant three bombs outside the house of the judge in the Panther 21 trial. It’s their first attack on a civilian target. Although no one is injured, a line has been crossed: violence not just against statues or parked police cars, but against people. Members of the group go underground and escalate their actions.

The podcast details the lives of those living underground, engaging in violent resistance to US imperialism, and what happened to many of them. It interviews some of those directly involved as well as their grown-up children. How they integrated being violent revolutionaries with bringing up young families – or not, in the case of those who died or went to jail for long periods – is for me a particularly important aspect of the story.

One thing that will be no surprise: the impact on those involved (and their children) is often glaringly different depending on skin colour.

The story is brought right up to date as the lives of the participants collide with Black Lives Matter and work to ‘defund the police’.

Zayd says, towards the end of the series: ‘when we look back, it might seem obvious what these young people should have done, the mistakes they made, and the wrong turns. But it also might seem like it’s all part of one long struggle, something larger than any one group, one family, or one generation.’